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Apologies (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

Many members around the chamber have quite properly acknowledged Margaret Mitchell’s hard work and persistence in following through with the bill: introducing it, shepherding it through committee and having negotiations on it with the Government. Her compromise at key moments has also been touched on, when commonsense responses were not in any way a betrayal of her original intentions with the bill. We should also acknowledge Paul Wheelhouse’s sensible responses on behalf the Government in bringing us to where we are today—the birth of a new piece of legislation, subject to the vote after the debate.

Members have also acknowledged that the Justice Committee and the clerks who service that committee have done a great deal of background work. That has brought us to a position that, although not perfect—as a number of members reflected when they said that this is a first stage—is a declaration of intention on behalf of the Parliament that there should be a different culture or approach as we go forward.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission, in supporting the approach that Margaret Mitchell developed in her cross-party working group, helped to provide the kernel that formed not only part of the policy memorandum, but part of the bill that we will vote on tonight.

The policy memorandum indicates that obstacles to apologising exist in Scotland. It argues that there is

“an entrenched culture in Scotland and elsewhere that offering an apology when something has gone wrong is perceived as a sign of weakness.”

It also refers to:

“a fear that an acknowledgement of fault can ... lead to litigation.”

I would add a third point—that there is also an individual fear, in a professional situation, that offering an apology offers a threat to future opportunities for career advancement, which sometimes silences people and stops them saying the right thing at the right time.

Margaret McDougall, Gavin Brown and other members indicated that there is no compensation culture in Scotland. However, as an example, compensation payments made by the national health service in Scotland through clinical negligence and other risk indemnity schemes have risen from £1.6 million in 2000-01 to £58.24 million in 2010-11. I do not think that I will be alone in the chamber in having dealt with constituents who began a complaint journey merely wanting an apology, an explanation and the confidence that the circumstances would not be repeated. That pertains not only to health service complaints, but to the complaints that we receive across the board.

The policy memorandum argues that in many cases people complain about a particular situation simply to achieve a sincere apology and an assurance that the situation will improve for the future. To that extent, I think that the change in culture that is flagged up by the bill is to be welcomed. It is an open door and an opportunity for those who act on our behalf in public services to offer an apology in the right circumstances. It is also an opportunity to leave a complainer in no doubt at an early stage that what they have said has been heard, understood and believed, that the evidence supports the fact that an apology is due and that the apology is offered sincerely, with a view to repairing the situation for the future.

The bill proposed by Margaret Mitchell, and now agreed between her and the Government, goes a long way towards providing the circumstances that will make life better for the general public in the future.

The bill will apply to all civil proceedings—apart from those that many members mentioned—and it is not retrospective in effect. Some members said that they are unsure whether it will achieve what it set out to achieve, but unless we take a step into the unknown by agreeing to pass it this evening, no change in culture can be achieved.

I welcome the bill. Like the Government, we will support it when it comes to the vote.